Charlotte Stanford

title.none: McDonald and Ormrod, eds., Rites of Passage (Charlotte Stanford)

identifier.other: baj9928.0606.007 06.06.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Charlotte Stanford, Brigham Young University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: McDonald, Nicola F., and W.M. Ormrod, eds. Rites of Passage: Cultures of Transition in the Fourteenth Century. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2004. Pp. vii, 176. $90.00 (hb). ISBN: 1-903153-15-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.06.07

McDonald, Nicola F., and W.M. Ormrod, eds. Rites of Passage: Cultures of Transition in the Fourteenth Century. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2004. Pp. vii, 176. $90.00 (hb). ISBN: 1-903153-15-8.

Reviewed by:

Charlotte Stanford
Brigham Young University

The idea of the rite of passage (a term taken from folklore studies of the early twentieth century and originating in the work of scholar Arnold Van Gennep) is a concept often raised in academic discourse but much less frequently considered in detail. This selection of essays, deriving from the 2001 York Interdisciplinary Conference on the Fourteenth Century, claims to be the first serious application of this concept within the discipline of medieval studies by testing its utility on a number of topics among its eight essays.

The wide range of this diverse collection is grounded by Miri Rubin's thoughtful introduction, which clarifies the three crucial stages of rites of passage: separation, transition, and incorporation. Her discussion of them is a necessary prelude to developing her argument that "studying ritual historically is an ethnographic exercise" (11), as the diversity of her illustrative examples reaches far beyond the fourteenth-century book framework. Rubin's stated purpose of "exploring medieval lives through concepts that aim at comparison" (11) is subordinated to the exploration of the idea of the place of the rite of passage itself, and particularly the stated theme of transition, understood (as in the studies of Victor and Edith Turner) as a liminal phase. Although Rubin's introduction contributes by skillfully knitting together the common threads of this diverse collection of topics, highlighting the contributions of each essay to this larger task of "engaging with a century of exploration on the nature of human creativity" (12), the true value for medieval studies is found instead through the application of the idea through individual topics by the authors of these essays.

Joel Burden's essay, "Re-writing a Rite of Passage: The Peculiar Funeral of Edward II", considers how, in the unusual circumstances of commemorating a dead, deposed king, funeral rites could be shaped to reinscribe political legitimacy on his young successor. Burden clarifies how both innovations (the use of a funerary effigy, the choice of Gloucester abbey) and traditions (delaying burial to allow the attendance of the heir, employing accepted regalia) were used to create a phase of transition, demonstrating how this rite of passage employed cultural and ritual rites to cement political power. This funerary analysis is helpful in differentiating ritual purpose in terms of performative practice as opposed to a concept of fixed, and therefore decontextualized, ritual use.

The study by W. M. Ormrod, "Coming to Kingship: Boy Kings and the Passage to Power in Fourteenth-Century England", examines the accessions of Edward III and Richard II through transitional rites such as marriage, fatherhood, military leadership, and assertions of political authority. The author's contention that these events helped enunciate the movement of these young monarchs into full kingship goes beyond usual scholarly studies of formal liturgical events such as coronations. Indeed, Ormrod argues that the coronation was an "occasion out of real time" (35) that was meant to assert the status of a king already made, rather than to make a king. Though such statements seem to negate the power of ritual, his essay does not necessarily dismiss the import of formal liturgy as much as it highlights the practicalities of the daily exercise of power and the step-by-step changes that allowed the strengthening of that power in the hands of a maturing ruler. This is persuasively illustrated by the early independence of the teenage Edward III, while in the case of Richard II, his failure to achieve some of these events (fatherhood, significant military victory) helps explain his long subordination to a continual council.

The book's third essay, P.H. Cullum's "Boy/Man into Clerk/Priest: The Making of the Late Medieval Clergy", discusses the fourteenth-century erosion of clerical and lay separation. Viewing entry into the clergy as a series of rites rather than a single event sheds light on how men could divert from the older, age-related pattern of successive ordinations to find homes in literate lay careers and also how men typically rose through the ranks of the clergy.

Sharon Wells's "Manners Maketh Man: Living, Dining and Becoming a Man in the Later Middle Ages" considers rituals involving the presentation and consumption of food and the way in which they helped create, and even define, adult (masculine) authority. Her argument, founded on Clifford Geertz's notions of the self-defining ceremonies of the elite and Edward Shils's concept of charisma-conferring "serious acts", defines the fourteenth-century great hall, in its function as dining hall, as an arena of such charismatic ceremonies. Her discussion of architectural setting and gesture provides a welcome foray into some visual aspects of rites of passage, although the unproblematized elision of historical and literary texts strikes me as somewhat troubling.

Helen Phillips distinguishes between the fictional and the actual with more care in her "Rites of Passage in French and English Romances". The focus given by romances on childhood and growing up allowed writers to explore chivalric tensions between issues such as militarism and Christian piety. The emphasis on knightly achievements, such as dubbing or building reputation, is of a piece with the author's argument that amorous fulfillment, though an important theme, is secondary to the male world of identity and class created through rites of passage in romance literature.

Jane Gilbert's essay, "Becoming Woman in Chaucer: 'On ne nait pas femme, on le meurt'", plays on Simone de Beauvoir's assertion that a woman is not born, but becomes--through death. Her examination of the final rite of passage, whereby a deceased individual is separated from the community of the living and assimilated into a final community of death, is grounded in Robert Hertz's anthropological studies of secondary burial. Through this phenomenon, dead bodies are permanently disposed of, dead souls are eased out of the patterns of daily life, and mourners are reintegrated into society. Her application of this to two of Chaucer's texts demonstrates how femininity is politicized through memorial in the Book of the Duchess , while the same feminine expectations are challenged by Alceste in the Legend of Good Women .

In Isabel Davis's "John Gower's Fear of Flying: Transitional Masculinities in the Confessio Amantis ", Gower's character Amans is examined through erotic transgressions akin to those of the novel Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. The parallel discussions of social change in late-fourteenth-century England with 1970s feminism investigate flight and travel as metaphors for liminoid experience. Though this essay relies on Victor and Edith Turner's differentiation between liminal (experience of passage) and liminoid (the experience of the passenger), Davis challenges their conclusions on medieval religious practice, arguing for a greater autonomy for the individual in literature as a negotiator of ethical codes.

Finally, Sarah Kay's contribution, "'Le moment de conclure': Initiation as Retrospection in Froissart's Dits amoureux ", uses a psychoanalytic lens to invert the anthropological model presented in the book as a whole. Based on a Lacanian examination of memory and the past, this study treats Froissart's transitions through the different ages of man (and initiations to love) as musings on the gap between event and remembrance. Only in this moment of conclusion can past events become truly "real". In a broader sense, Kay's reflections on initiation and love as rites of passage are reflections on how we as historians see the past as it is filtered through the moment of the (mis) construed present.

Though the introduction's claim to a wide range of subjects is partially justified by the number and types of texts referenced, the book is split evenly between cultural-political and literary topics. I found it disappointing that this study (with a brief exception in Wells's essay) contains so little application to visual culture, surely a key feature when taking an ethnographic, not to mention interdisciplinary, approach. Despite this shortcoming, the editors' approach is a timely one; as a reader, I found the applications especially rich in regard to reevaluating ritual and liturgy (Burden and Ormrod) and examining the potential of feminine power vis-a-vis death (Gilbert). McDonald's and Ormrod's efforts to provide a worthy series of essays in which the concept of rite of passage may profitably be examined has produced a volume that will be of great interest to medievalists because of the application of these different methodologies.